Salt is the single most important ingredient in all of cooking. Nothing else even comes remotely close. Learning how to utilize salt is perhaps the foundational skill in learning how to cook.
To understand salt, you have to grasp one simple concept: salt enhances existing flavors in food.
The vast majority of the time, salt does not add flavors to food. That's what things like spices (including black pepper!) and sauces do. Salt really just enables us to taste existing flavors more acutely. It does other things (draws out moisture, changes the texture of certain foods, aids in preserving foods, etc), but it primarily serves as a flavor enhancer.
You can easily experience this yourself next time you eat an avocado. First, try a bite of avocado without salt. Notice the flavors. Then try an identical piece with a small sprinkling of salt on top. You'll notice that the flavors are far more prominent, and the un-salted avocado tastes "dull" by comparison.
One of the dirty secrets of the restaurant industry is just how much salt is used in professional kitchens. Many people wonder why the food they cook at home doesn't taste as good as the food they eat in restaurants. Proper (and generous) use of salt is a huge factor there.
If you want to make food at home that tastes delicious, you have to learn how to properly use salt. So how does one learn this? PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! You have to start using salt when you cook, and paying close attention to how you use it. It's actually pretty easy to learn this, provided you cook at home fairly often.
Here's a few easy tips for getting better at using salt. I firmly believe that most people can radically improve their home cooking with just a few simple changes. None of this stuff is too difficult, and with a bit of practice it will become second nature.
- Salt in Stages
Salt needs time to permeate food. Salting your food right before you eat it will result in food that's super salty on the outside and salt-free on the inside. Not ideal. Furthermore, the salinity profile of foods will change as they cook (and as the salt permeates). If you salt in stages, you'll allow your food the opportunity to absorb salt at various layers, and you'll be able to slowly built towards the salt profile that you want, while still maintaining good balance.
2. Taste as you go
There's no point in salting in stages if you're not tasting your food at each stage. This is absolutely critical, as you'll never master salt unless you do this.
If you're cooking something like a big piece of meat, you'll want to salt generously, then wait a bit for the salt to settle before cooking it. If you're roasting vegetables, you'll want to salt then beforehand, and possibly add more as the cooking process continues. Same goes for anything that's sautéed. For things that are boiled, you'll want to salt the water itself. You can taste these things throughout the cooking process and add more salt as necessary. Not only will the salt permeate and distribute more evenly, but you'll ultimately get a better flavor profile. Salting everything at once is a crapshoot. If you taste as you go, you're in full control.
3. Know which ingredients add salt
There are quite a few ingredients that you might use in your cooking that are sources of salt– these include soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, anchovies, various hot sauces, certain types of cheese, certain types of stock, and more. If you're cooking with these ingredients, you're not going to need as much direct salt. If you taste as you go, you'll know when you need to add more.
4. Learn your salt types
For the vast majority of people, there exists just one type of salt– table salt. For salt nerds, there are literally hundreds of different types with various nuances. I personally keep a few different types of salt on deck, but most home cooks only need two. First, an everyday cooking salt. Second, a flaky sea salt that can be used for finishing dishes– think of what you might sprinkle on a sliced steak or avocado.
I personally prefer Kosher salt for everyday use– Diamond Crystal and Morton are my favorites. You can use finely ground salt if you prefer. More important than the exact type you choose is using just one consistently so that you can learn exactly how much to use in different situations. For flaky salt for finishing dishes, I personally like Jacobsen Sea Salt.
If you're feeling fancy, pick up some black lava salt, red salt, pink salt, or green salt. There are a lot of cool salts out there. Smoked salt is a fun option, as are various flavored salts. This Jacobsen/Masienda collaboration (which is getting harder and harder to find) is probably my favorite.
5. Get yourself a salt cellar
When I worked in professional kitchens, the first thing I would do each day was fill up a pint-sized plastic container with salt. That thing came with me everywhere, all day long. At home, I like something a little bit more aesthetically pleasing– I got this one as a gift.
Because salt is the most important ingredient, you want to have easy access to it whenever you're cooking. The best way to do that is with a salt cellar that sits in a convenient spot on your counter.
You can use anything for this– a small bowl, a wide cup, a squat mason jar, etc. The important thing is that it stays on your counter where it's easy to access and that it's always full. Just don't use anything with a lid. And for the love of all things holy, DO NOT use a salt shaker or a grinder. You'll never have proper control over the amount that you use, and it will take far too long to do. You can keep your flaky sea salt in a special container, since you'll use it less often. For your everyday cooking salt, having a salt cellar is an absolute necessity.
6. Salt from up high
When you are sprinkling salt on your food (especially for meat), you want to salt from up high, rather than from just above your food. The salt will distribute more evenly, coating the entire surface area of the food. If you hold your fingers just an inch above your food when you salt it, the salt will land in large clumps in certain places, and not at all in others. If you hold your fingers 6-10 inches above your food, it will layer far more evenly, and the food will taste better. This point was drilled into me so intensely when I cooked professionally that it's become instinct. If you don't have a chef yelling at you to do so, you'll just have to remind yourself constantly.
I think that home cooking is one of the most important and rewarding skills that anyone can develop. And I believe that great cooking is far easier and far more accessible than most people think. I plan to write a lot more about cooking this year. If you want to get notifications when I publish something new, feel free to subscribe!